T wo weeks ago a group of Vineyard farmers , selectmen, county commissioners and other Islanders interested in farming heard about the advantages of setting up an agricultural commission from a delegation of representatives involved in agricultural commisions elsewhere in the commonwealth. Vineyarders attending this workshop felt that there was enough merit in the idea to put together a proposal for how this could be done on the Vineyard.

We discussed the challenges of preserving agriculture in the face of skyrocketing real estate prices, and how an agricultural commission can help. An agricultural commission is an officially recognized voice for the agricultural community which can offer a whole range of advocacy, educational and dispute resolution and mediation services to the community. It is purely advisory to town boards, with no regulatory or permitting authority.

Agricultural commissions across the state have taken on a wide range of specific actions. For many, the first priority was to pass a right-to-farm bylaw at town meeting. The passage of such a bylaw reaffirms what is already in state law and voices town support for preserving and maintaining farming in the community. Other efforts involved working for farm-friendly zoning regulations and running awareness campaigns about the importance of farming and what it means to live near a farm.

Dick Ward, a member of the Carver agricultural commission and also a selectman, described how farmers reacting to the meltdown of the cranberry industry created that agricultural commission. Susan Guiducci, chairman of the Dartmouth agricultural commission, said her commission was created as a result of a comprehensive planning effort. Scott Soares, former acting commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources, said the presence of an agricultural commission can help move a region or town up the priority list for the commonwealth’s fund to help purchase agricultural preservation restrictions (APR).

There are now 106 agricultural commissions throughout Massachusetts, most set up in the past few years. In most of these communities, there had been no organization working to protect farming interests.

By contrast, the Vineyard is fortunate to already have several organizations that work directly or indirectly to promote agriculture. The Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society runs the fair and other events throughout the year, hosts a variety of agricultural competitions, and has an agricultural grant program. The West Tisbury Farmers’ Market allows dozens of farmers to directly market to thousands of Vineyarders each week. The Dukes County Commission has a representative to the USDA. The Island Grown Initiative is promoting Island-grown foods and has just set up a mobile poultry processing unit. Martha’s Vineyard Slow Foods encourages people to savor the pleasures of local foods. An inventory prepared by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Agricultural Society and IGI indicates that there are now 26 food-producing farms and 30 other farms of five acres or more on the Island, to say nothing of a large number of smaller, backyard farms.

Though there are already many pro-farming efforts on the Island, there was a sense at the workshop that setting up an Island-wide agricultural commission could be beneficial to the Island, to help coordinate the current efforts and to take on those currently lacking. There were several responsibilities that participants felt were particularly relevant for the Vineyard:

• It could offer a forum to allow existing groups to coordinate their efforts.

• It could provide towns and farmers a link to state and federal agricultural agencies, professional staff, and funding sources.

• It could advise towns on zoning regulations that promote farming, and it could articulate the agricultural community’s perspective on upcoming development projects.

• It could offer conflict resolution on agricultural issues, such as dealing with the presence of farm animals within residential neighborhoods.

Other agricultural commissions in the commonwealth were set up on a town-by-town basis. However, the feeling at the meeting was that the Island would be best served by having a single agricultural commission, with members appointed by each board of selectmen, to include representatives of the Agricultural Society and other organizations. A small group was asked to put together a proposal to discuss with the Island selectmen. Irene Winkler, coordinator for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Pete Westover, consultant to MDAR, offered their assistance.

A videotape of the workshop will be running on MVTV. It was sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, the Dukes County Commission, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Robert Woodruff is a West Tisbury farmer. Mark London is executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.